The upcoming anniversary of the Eastern Partnership – a project of the European Union on the development of integration with six post-Soviet states – will be sad for most of its participants. Efforts to implement the project and the billions of euros spent are disproportionate to the result. The European perspectives of the EU “partners” are nearly worse than 10 years ago. Under these conditions, the European Union is ready to recognize the inefficiency of its own methods and radically change the approaches to its Eastern European neighbours – Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus.
Crisis of European Integration of the Former Soviet Republics
The European integration of the former Soviet republics on its eastern flank was initially viewed by the EU as a “long game,” and therefore the EU made a strategic stake on cooperation with civil society. Numerous grant programs and NGO networks promoted democratic values and advanced European practices among the population. The design was simple: to form among the masses the necessary request for democratic transformations, which would provoke a renewal of elites and bring to power a new generation of pro-European politicians.
The EU huge plans quickly stumbled upon local realities: the oligarchic clans of the post-Soviet countries that have existed since the 1990s controlled the state and therefore created their elites under the European auspices. For a long time, Brussels was forced to put up with such a situation: the oligarchic “superstructure” was considered to be the inevitable evil of the transition period and, albeit in words, it declared the European way of development.
As a result, the transition period was critically delayed: semi-criminal regimes were not thrown to the trash can of history and, having picked up the European agenda, they have become even strengthened. In recent years, a major success for high money of Moldova and Ukraine has become a new round of tension in relations between the West and Russia. The “Russian hybrid war” served as a convenient reason to tighten the screws in domestic politics, to stop the democratization process and reverse it. Time after time, local elites played a geopolitical card to neutralize any abuses, corruption and theft of European financial aid.
Over time, the EU was tired of confrontation with Russia and began to look for ways of reconciliation with Moscow. The geopolitical trick of the oligarchs ceased to work, the patience of Brussels collapsed, and the European bureaucrats seriously decided to change the approaches to Eastern Europe. First of all, they ceased to support the oligarchic clans.
Moldova, as before, is a testing ground for new approaches of the European Union. At one time, the country was considered the main triumph of the Eastern Partnership, was favoured by the attention of the European bosses and was the first to receive a visa-free regime with the EU. It was the first to fail European reforms, so that the European Union was not even afraid to take a risk with its image and publicly criticized the ruling regime. The main oligarch and informal master of Moldova, Vlad Plahotniuc, together with his entourage, were separated from contacts with the EU leadership and the cash flows which were abundant before. Instead, Brussels appointed pro-European opposition represented by Sandu and Nastase as a favourite officially accepting them in high instances.
The Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko also faced with the fierce intolerance of Brussels. The oligarch president, who failed reforms and brought the country to the edge of an economic abyss, is as toxic for Europe as his Moldovan misfortunate compatriots. In addition, internal and foreign policy of Poroshenko is too much focused on the war with Russia; having lost freshness it was not needed by the EU.
Brussels has already prepared the ground for Petro Poroshenko’s departure from the political arena of Ukraine. At the end of last year, the European Union forced the president to accept vital macro-financial assistance on conditions which are self-defeating for his rating: in exchange for the growth of utility tariffs and cuts in social spending. The closest supporters began to leave the Ukrainian leader, and during the upcoming parliamentary elections we can see how the EU will continue to expel big capital from the political processes in Ukraine.
Together with Ukraine, the opportunity window for Brussels opens in Belarus. For many years the republic was a zone of Russian unconditional influence, although Minsk from time to time flirted with the EU in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. The real European integration of Belarus was not discussed – its imitation was an element of bargaining with Russia for the best conditions for financial assistance and economic preferences.
Today, the regional context is changing: Moscow and Minsk have accumulated significant disagreements, which regularly become public. At the same time, “soft power” is bearing fruit: the highest echelons of power in Belarus has imperceptibly brought a generation of politicians with compromise vision towards the EU. Lukashenko, who has acted as a guarantor of friendship with Russia for many years, is preparing for a smooth transit of power, which is scheduled to take place during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020.
The emerging western drift of the country is significantly accelerated by the intransigence of Russia’s position in the dialogue with Belarus on energy resources, which makes Belarus increasingly look to the west. The EU has a unique chance to get Minsk out of control by Moscow and dictate its own conditions through financial aid flows. Surely, as a first priority, Brussels will try to “scratch off” the ruling oligarchic stratum represented by Lukashenka and his entourage, and later bring healthy pro-European forces to power in the country.
For the oligarchic regimes of Eastern Europe, difficult times are coming. Many years of work by the European Union were not in vain – the civil society of the post-Soviet states is demanding changes more and more, and the close economic ties developed during the years of European integration have become a powerful tool for influencing the power structures built by big business. The vendetta announced by Brussels, which started in Moldova, practically leaves no chance for survival to the power groups. In the foreseeable future, the ruling post-Soviet regimes as they are will be at risk to become finally the history – where they belong.
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